Britain and NATO have a problem.
That's the assessment of Britain's top army officer, Gen. Nick Carter, who spoke Monday on the transatlantic alliance, supplementing the comments of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis last week.
The 40-year officer spoke of a "diversified" and "escalation"-centric Russian approach to war-fighting that enables Putin to launch highly confident operations in Eastern Europe. Carter described Russia's recent ZAPAD military exercise in which its military showed off 150 new weapons and pieces of equipment, and proved its logistical ability to move forces rapidly into and out of different fighting zones.
Yet the general's most interesting focus was his consideration of Russia's highly capable missile platforms. These, he said, have increased in number by a factor of 12 over the past five years, giving Russia the ability to shield vast areas of seized territory from counter-attacking NATO forces. The risk here at the strategic level is that Russia could secure a rapid cease-fire and effective victory in any conflict by making the costs of any counter-offensive too high. In my opinion, Russian strategy seeks to maximize and weaponize any hesitation between different NATO states.
So how does the U.K. intend to counter the challenge?
Well, Carter wants more investment on capable ground-based air defense systems (that could shoot down enemy missiles and aircraft) and in reserve forces and in force logistics capabilities that would allow Britain to push its forces into the fight quickly and more effectively. The chief of the general staff also wants to modernize British military equipment from its tank forces to intelligence and surveillance platforms so that the U.K. can target and destroy strongholds deep in enemy territory.
Carter wants greater policy efforts to counter Kremlin propaganda and separate Western Europe from its present energy reliance on Russian producers. While the general is right here, Germany unfortunately remains disinterested in pushing back against Putin.
The army chief also wants a greater posture of confidence: "Russia respects strength and people who stand up to them." Carter then added an interesting consideration here in that for the Baltic NATO member states, "A platoon of [NATO] infantry is worth a squadron of F-16s when it comes to [showing] commitment." Carter is right: where a platoon is a tripwire that threatens Russia with reflexive escalation from NATO, F-16s offer a capability with weaker symbolism.
Still, Carter warned us not to expect the expected in any Russian attack. Such an attack would be unlikely to involve agent provocateurs of the kind that we witnessed in 2014 Ukraine. Instead, Carter sees the potential for a range of possible activities that do not rise to the obvious condition of an Article 5-level attack on a NATO member state (Article 5 being an attack on a NATO state that requires the alliance's collective response).
Ultimately, while Carter's speech was good, it did have a few slightly disappointing elements. First, the general refused to admit Britain's strategic failures in Helmand province, Afghanistan, and southern Iraq. Second, his focus on updated existing British-made equipment reflects a politically easier but less beneficial alternative to buying better new equipment from foreign nations like the U.S. and Israel. Finally, Carter's call to empower junior officers rings hollow. A British Army friend told me that he was sometimes given only a few rounds during firing exercises while at Britain's Sandhurst military academy!
Anyway, you can watch the speech here.